Writing Rules Of Thumb
I wrote the first chapter of what became Loss Of Reason in 1988. It took me until October of 2015 to perfect it to where it was worth publishing. The purpose of these articles is to pass along some of the handy rules of thumb I wish I'd had at the beginning of that twenty-seven years which continue to make my writing clearer — and easier. Check back periodically as I’ll be adding to these as time goes by.
— Tools —
The tool I use most is Google’s Ngram Viewer. They’ve analyzed hundreds of thousands of books and keep the results in a giant database. Put in two or more phrases separated by commas, say “cellphone, cell phone” and the viewer will display a chart comparing the historic usage of those phrases. At a glance you can tell which phrase is more popular or less popular, whether it is increasing in popularity or decreasing, and whether its usage trend is accelerating or decelerating.
I don’t always choose the most popular phrase (though I usually do), or the one climbing in popularity the fastest. It’s just nice to know where you stand. You can find Ngram Viewer here, or click or tap the graphic.
The Elements Of Style
The one universal tool every good writer has or should have in their arsenal is the handy reference manual The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White. I don’t follow all its rules (see Harry Potter . . . the comma fault, below), but many of them are excellent.
Its most useful rule is #22 (Part II): "Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end." In other words: Save your best stuff for the end of the sentence. Your best sentence for the end of the paragraph. Your best paragraph for the end of the chapter. Your best chapter for the end of the book. That’s where the punch is and should be, that’s what people remember most: the end.
Rule is #14 (Part V) is great too: "Avoid fancy words . . . Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy . . . "
And rule #17 (Part II): Omit needless words.
I keep this little gray paperback version on my nightstand.
It can be purchased at Amazon here, or click or tap the graphic. There’s also a Kindle version for $.99. You can find free copies of the text everywhere, but some of the older versions are missing many good rules. Two of the better versions for example are here . . . and here.
Harry Potter And The S.P.L.I.C.E. Of Life
One of my favorite authors, J.K. Rowling, uses two unique tools in her writing style. I’ll discuss her magical use of adverbs later.
The other thing she does that I love, which some editors seem to have a problem with, is the so-called “comma fault.” Essentially this “rule” states: no two complete noun-verb sentences should be joined by a comma. The Elements Of Style expresses this as: Rule #5: “Do not join independent clauses by a comma.”
Oddly, the basic dialog tag violates this rule: “I feel great,” George said. (I.e.: "I feel great." George said.)
But is 'George said.' even a sentence? Can it be used as one?
How about: “Who says?” “George said.” Noun-verb — so, yes, "George said." is a slightly awkward, perhaps unusual, complete sentence.
There are many other more common forms that break this rule writing professors try to use to restrict the way their students express the spoken word. The rhetorical versus the grammatical. How we speak versus how it’s written down. Some of these examples taken from Harry Potter novels can be found in this fascinating Cambridge Scholars article: here. It begins on page fifteen.
Chicago Manual Of Style (CMOS)
There are a few exceptions where I purposely ignore their advice (I'll get into those later), but for the most part my novels follow the Chicago Manual Of Style. It's generally followed by most popular novelists today. AP Style is an alternative standard that is used by most newspapers.
An especially good example is the CMOS hyphenation table, particularly the numbers, which can be found here: CMOS hyphenation table. These are the topics the CMOS covers: Contents.
You can get a free thirty-day trial account here: CMOS Trial.